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Digital literacy is receiving increased scholarly attention as a potential explanatory factor in the spread of misinformation and other online pathologies. As a concept, however, it remains surprisingly elusive, with little consensus on definitions or measures. We provide a digital literacy framework for political scientists and test survey items to measure it with an application to online information retrieval tasks. There exists substantial variation in levels of digital literacy in the population, which we show is correlated with age and could confound observed relationships. However, this is obscured by researchers’ reliance on online convenience samples that select for people with computer and internet skills. We discuss the implications of these measurement and sample selection considerations for effect heterogeneity in studies of online political behavior. We argue that there is no universally applicable formula for selecting a given non-probability sample or operationalization of the concept of digital literacy; instead, we conclude, researchers should make theoretically informed arguments about how they select both sample and measure.
“Clickbait” media has long been espoused as an unfortunate consequence of the rise of digital journalism. But little is known about why readers choose to read clickbait stories. Is it merely curiosity, or might voters think such stories are more likely to provide useful information? We conduct a survey experiment in Italy, where a major political party enthusiastically embraced the esthetics of new media and encouraged their supporters to distrust legacy outlets in favor of online news. We offer respondents a monetary incentive for correct answers to manipulate the relative salience of the motivation for accurate information. This incentive increases differences in the preference for clickbait; older and less educated subjects become even more likely to opt to read a story with a clickbait headline when the incentive to produce a factually correct answer is higher. Our model suggests that a politically relevant subset of the population prefers Clickbait Media because they trust it more.
Knowledge creation is a social enterprise, especially in political science. Sharing new findings widely and quickly is essential for progress. Scholars can now use Twitter to rapidly disseminate ideas, and many do. What are the implications of this new tool? Who uses it, how do they use it, and what are the implications for exacerbating or ameliorating existing inequalities in terms of research dissemination and attention? We construct a novel dataset of all 1,236 political science professors at PhD-granting institutions in the United States who have a Twitter account to answer these questions. We find that female scholars and those on the tenure track are more likely to use Twitter, especially for the dissemination of research. However, we consistently find that research by men shared on Twitter is more likely to be passed along further by men than research by women.
Does social media educate voters, or mislead them? This study measures changes in political knowledge among a panel of voters surveyed during the 2015 UK general election campaign while monitoring the political information to which they were exposed on the Twitter social media platform. The study's panel design permits identification of the effect of information exposure on changes in political knowledge. Twitter use led to higher levels of knowledge about politics and public affairs, as information from news media improved knowledge of politically relevant facts, and messages sent by political parties increased knowledge of party platforms. But in a troubling demonstration of campaigns' ability to manipulate knowledge, messages from the parties also shifted voters' assessments of the economy and immigration in directions favorable to the parties' platforms, leaving some voters with beliefs further from the truth at the end of the campaign than they were at its beginning.
I conduct an experiment which examines the impact of moral suasion on partisans engaged in uncivil arguments. Partisans often respond in vitriolic ways to politicians they disagree with, and this can engender hateful responses from partisans from the other side. This phenomenon was especially common during the contentious 2016 US Presidential Election. Using Twitter accounts that I controlled, I sanctioned people engaged partisan incivility in October 2016. I found that messages containing moral suasion were more effective at reducing incivility than were messages with no moral content in the first week post-treatment. There were no significant treatment effects in the first day post-treatment, emphasizing the need for research designs that measure effect duration. The type of moral suasion employed, however, did not have the expected differential effect on either Republicans or Democrats. These effects were significantly moderated by the anonymity of the subjects.
Commentators and some political scholars claim to have observed a “dumbing down” in the level of sophistication of political language, leading to anxiety over the quality of democratic deliberation, knowledge, policy design, and implementation. This work typically focuses on the president’s State of the Union addresses. Using quantitative indicators of textual complexity, we measure trends since 1790 in that and other key political corpora, including rulings of the Supreme Court, the Congressional Record, and presidential executive orders. To draw comparative lessons, we also study political texts from the United Kingdom, in the form of party broadcasts and manifestos. Not only do we cast shade on the supposed relentless simplification of the State of the Union corpus, we show that this trend is not evident in other forms of elite political communication, including presidential ones. Finally, we argue that a stylistic—rather than an obviously substantive—shift toward shorter sentences is driving much of the variation over time we see in traditional measures of political sophistication.
As non-democratic regimes have adapted to the proliferation of social media, they have began actively engaging with Twitter to enhance regime resilience. Using data taken from the Twitter accounts of Venezuelan legislators during the 2014 anti-Maduro protests in Venezuela, we fit a topic model on the text of the tweets and analyze patterns in hashtag use by the two coalitions. We argue that the regime’s best strategy in the face of an existential threat like the narrative developed by La Salida and promoted on Twitter was to advance many competing narratives that addressed issues unrelated to the opposition’s criticism. Our results show that the two coalitions pursued different rhetorical strategies in keeping with our predictions about managing the conflict advanced by the protesters. This article extends the literature on social media use during protests by focusing on active engagement with social media on the part of the regime. This approach corroborates and expands on recent research on inferring regime strategies from propaganda and censorship.
George: It is unthinkable that [someone] could manipulate the democratic process.
Dotty: Democracy is all in the head…
George: …Furthermore, I had a vote!
Dotty: It’s not the voting that’s democracy, it’s the counting.
Tom Stoppard, Jumpers, Act I, p. 35.
Until now, we have made two simplifying assumptions. First, society makes all of its collective decisions by some variant of majority rule. Second, spatial utility functions can represent preference orderings. However “social choice” theorists work in a much broader context than spatial preferences or majority rule. Their goal is to select the most general possible representation of preferences, and the most encompassing possible conception of institutions. These generalizations require some careful definitions.
Social choice analyzes alternative decision rules, or deciding how to decide. We have discussed in this book a hierarchy of choices, and it is important to understand the differences.
Deciding how to decide how to decide: Are we a group? Are we going to kill each other, or cooperate? How will we constitute ourselves?
Deciding how to decide: What decision rule will we use, and what are the rules for changing the rules, in our constitution?
Deciding: What will be our policies and everyday political decision about speed limits, budgets, and regulation of pollution, in the context of a constituted group with relatively fixed formal decision rules and amendment processes?
That argument … maintained by many who assume to be authorities, was … that the opinions of some men are to be regarded, and of other men not to be regarded. Now you, Crito, are a disinterested person who are not going to die tomorrow.… Tell me, then, whether I am right in saying that some opinions, and the opinions of some men only, are to be valued, and other opinions, and the opinions of other men, are not to be valued. I ask you whether I was right in maintaining this?
(Socrates, in Plato’s Crito)
Choosing in Groups: Politics as Constituted Cooperative Action
Ambrose Bierce claimed, in The Devil’s Dictionary, that politics is the “strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles … the conduct of public affairs for private advantage.” At its crudest, politics may seem like nothing more than the use of power and authority to direct social relations. Franz de Waal, in Chimpanzee Politics, defined politics as “social manipulation to secure and maintain influential positions,” and then pointed out that “politics involves every one of us … in our family, at school, at work, and in meetings” (p. 208).
But there must be something more to politics, more merit to the idea that groups can choose well, as a group and for the group. Not as a state, or government, necessarily, but as a socially constituted group, because “politics” is really just choosing and acting in groups. It is a mistake to think that choosing in groups is zero sum, so that for every winner there is a loser. Long ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (Book III, part 9) claimed that we should understand politics not (only) as a means of choosing, but as a path to social connectedness. Politics is the set of social relations by which societies become good and people achieve fulfillment.
There is but one law which, from its nature, needs unanimous consent. This is the social compact; for civil association is the most voluntary of all acts.… Apart from this primitive contract, the vote of the majority always binds all the rest. This follows from the contract itself. But it is asked how a man can be both free and forced to conform to wills that are not his own. How are the opponents at once free and subject to laws they have not agreed to?
I retort that the question is wrongly put. The citizen gives his consent to all the laws, including those which are passed in spite of his opposition, and even those which punish him when he dares to break any of them. Rousseau, Book IV, Chapter 2, “Voting”
Three broad subjects interest political theorists: axiology, or the knowledge of ethics and “the good;” ontology, the knowledge of being and existence; and epistemology, the knowledge of knowledge and knowing. We want to know, for example: What is the good society? What are the types or categories of human societies? How do we assess empirical evidence to understand the effects of real policies on that society?
The study of voting and collective choice most often has been conceived as a problem in epistemology. That is, given that we – the members of a group – all want something, how do we know if a particular voting system can lead us to it? If the “right thing to do” is known to exist, the problem is making sure that voting processes can help discover it.
“I would like to see anyone, prophet, king or God, convince a thousand cats to do the same thing at the same time.”
— Neil Gaiman, Sandman #18: “A Dream of a Thousand Cats”
What if they had an election and nobody came?
In Newport, England, an election for Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) had a zero turnout in at least one polling station in Bettws. According to the BBC:
Newport councillor Kevin Whitehead, Independent member for the city’s Bettws ward, said it was “staggering” that a polling station had failed to register a single vote. “It’s just apathy. I think apathy rules when it comes to politics in general,” he said. “People are more concerned with the bigger picture like the recession.”
Conservative councillor Matthew Evans, who is the leader of the opposition on Newport council, said the fact nobody had voted at a polling station “doesn’t show anybody in a particularly good light”. However, he said he was not surprised there was a low turnout generally in the elections. “Clearly, if you’ve got a polling station where nobody turns up, it’s extremely disappointing,” he said. “It’s quite frankly a daft time of the year to have an election – it’s cold and miserable.” “It wasn’t a topic that people felt passionately about.”
Labour’s Newport West MP Paul Flynn, whose constituency includes Bettws, said he believed a lack of enthusiasm for the elections from the Conservative Party which introduced the policy had contributed to the low turnout. But he admitted another factor was the lack of trust in politics and lack of confidence in politicians generally. The total turnout for Wales was 14.9%.
BBC News Website, November 16, 2012, “Zero turnout at Newport polling station in PCC election.”
This book is an introduction to the logic and analytics of group choice. To understand how political institutions work, it is important to isolate what citizens - as individuals and as members of society - actually want. This book develops a means of 'representing' the preferences of citizens so that institutions can be studied more carefully. This is the first book to integrate the classical problem of constitutions with modern spatial theory, connecting Aristotle and Montesquieu with Arrow and Buchanan.
The nature of man is intricate; the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and, therefore, no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs. When I hear the simplicity of contrivance aimed at and boasted of in any new political constitutions, I am at no loss to decide that the artificers are grossly ignorant of their trade or totally negligent of their duty…
The rights of men are in a sort of middle, incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned… Political reason is a computing principle; adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing, morally and not metaphysically, or mathematically, true moral denominations.
Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1790, Part IV
Equilibrium and the Middle
The previous chapter introduced the idea of “spatial” utility functions for choices along a single dimension, and laid out the solution of equilibrium at the median position. Now, we ask whether this notion of the “middle” also is a plausible result in more complex political spaces, with two or more dimensions. Burke’s claim is intriguing: Is the “middle” in complex political choices really “incapable of definition, but not impossible to be discerned”? Is the middle a general concept, or is it restricted to policy choices of one dimension?
To introduce the logic of the multidimensional spatial model, it is useful first to consider an example of a legislative committee. We will call this the “Appropriations Committee;” it is responsible for choosing a budget with two line items. That is, the budget will be sum of the spending on Policy 1 and spending on Policy 2. The choosers may have preferences on each policy, prefer one policy to another, or have a complex preference regarding how the two policies go together.